Your listening for this post:
When I read Dr. Clemens’ post about this week’s reading, I was worried that “the most depressing book they have read” consensus of Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero would unduly influence me. It prepared me, in some ways, to build up a wall against what I might find. Thankfully, Saadawi’s prose tore down any barriers I had to the story and in the end, no, I wasn’t depressed. Depression is a terribly selfish emotion, inward looking and isolated.
I was in awe. I was ashamed. I was angry.
In awe because of something we don’t spend as much time on in this class because of the flood of injustice presented in the texts. I was in awe of the writing. Saadawi has taken the honest and harrowing tale of Firdaus and turned it into a beautiful fairy tale. And a fairy tale not in the unbelievable, happy-ending, Disney sense of the word, because that’s just patriarchal condescension dressed up in technicolor and musical numbers. No, a fairy tale in that it tells truths that are difficult to hear in their pure form; though Saadawi is as close to pure, I’d argue, it is possible to get. The cyclical nature of the storytelling underlined not only the multitude of oppressive waters Firdaus tries to rise above, but the constant rotation of her experiences. How falling in love is akin to falling into someone’s eyes, as if into their soul—and how the other person’s feeling matter little in that moment; how the severing of her clitoris as a young girl is reenacted over and over again as Firdaus is forced to sever herself from her own feelings in order to survive; these moments turn in the wheel of fate that Saadawi’s psychiatrist kneels on a cold floor to hear, entranced and unable to pull away.
And I was ashamed, just like the woman in our story frame, for being able to put the book down upon completion, plug in my iPhone and try to sleep. I was ashamed for having been born privileged in skin, location, money, and ability. I was ashamed that I never had to work so damned hard, not just to establish myself as a success, but to establish myself as a human being, surrounded by a world—worlds upon worlds—whose intent to dehumanize me for their own exploitation had become so profuse that it was hard to recognize. (How does a fish explain when the water is oppressive?) The multiple layers of oppression I talked about in the last post are laid bare in Woman at Point Zero and when even your body is no longer your own—and for women, is it ever?—lashing out and denying another their body in death seems almost righteous.
Then I was angry, because little has changed. Firdaus’s only moments of agency are the times she left the homes of her abusers and wandered the streets. Terrifying and edifying, these repeating scenes when she is poured into the masses of people and becomes anonymous are her only moments of freedom. This freedom is always ripped away when a man notices her and she follows. She follows because she has no other option and the only path to even a small sense of agency is money. Saadawi’s book feels like the fictionalization of Oyěwùmí’s essay, or better yet, the naturally outgrowth of relabeling an entire portion of the population. Re-categorizing community members as ‘women’ and therefore, subservient, allows a redistribution of power that makes the colonizer more comfortable in dealing with the colonized. We name things in order to control them, and in naming, we bring all the connotations from the colonizer’s language down upon the head of the named. Women are inferior because they have always been so. Women are unable to hold positions of power because in our imperial memory they have not—Her Royal Highness notwithstanding, since that’s ordained by God, who’s a man. The colonizer is so emboldened by his superior strength that he has no cause for reflection upon his own ideology—not even a recognition that he embodies an ideology, because it is the dominant one, and therefore, the right one.
Yet, Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero eclipses all the other readings for this week. It’s lyrical prose exposed the background drumming of patriarchal oppression in clearer tones than any essay or video. Firdaus’s struggle—no, I won’t patronize her by calling this a struggle—her realization is that life is her true prison is the essence of the story, of so many of these stories. It is not about changing Firdaus’s choices, but about changing the very fabric of the world in which she, and all of us, live. It is reading this and recognizing that this oppression is all around us and we perpetuate by being sad and depressed and feeling grateful. We should be in awe of this book. We should be ashamed that this is not our life. And we should be angry that we are still fish underwater, surrounded by a system determined to force into inferiority.
Perhaps the only way for us to evolve is to leave the water and find a way upon the land.